President Bush promised to listen to “any good idea” for fixing Social Security on Saturday as he sought to coax reluctant lawmakers into joining his effort to overhaul the retirement program.
But Democrats signaled little interest in working with Bush unless he scraps the centerpiece of his plan — allowing workers to shift up to 4 percentage points of their payroll taxes into private stock and bond accounts.
“I will work with members of Congress and listen to any good idea that does not include raising payroll taxes,” Bush said in his weekly radio address.
“But we cannot pretend that the problem does not exist,” he said, as he repeated his warning that Social Security was headed for bankruptcy.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, delivering the Democratic response, called the private accounts a risky venture that will add trillions to the national debt.
“If the president wants our support and the support of the country, he should stop advocating change based on ideology,” Schumer said.
“He should scrap his privatization proposal and start working in bipartisan way toward a common-sense solution,” the New York Democrat added. “If he does that, Democrats in Congress will work with him, (and) he’ll be able to pass a reform bill with big bipartisan majorities.”
A 12.4 percent payroll tax that is split evenly between workers and employers is used to pay the benefits of those now retired.
Transition costs for the private accounts would be required because the government would need to make up the difference between payroll taxes that are diverted into the accounts and those needed to pay benefits of current retirees.
In an interview on Thursday in USA Today, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said the trillions that would need to be borrowed for the private accounts were the “Achilles heel” of Bush’s Social Security program.
“How do you pay for this? The idea of borrowing trillions of dollars is going to be hard for a lot of people to swallow,” said Graham, a White House ally who has been trying to broker a compromise between Democrats and Republicans.
“Deficits matter,” he added.
Bush has conceded that private accounts alone will not solve Social Security’s problems and has raised the sensitive issue of reining in Social Security’s costs through such means as reducing future benefit growth or limiting benefits for wealthy retirees.
Democrats have hammered Bush for suggesting benefit limitations and many congressional Republicans are squeamish about embracing such ideas, fearing the issue could hurt them in the 2006 midterm elections.
Rather than offer proposals of his own to curtail Social Security’s costs, Bush has listed ideas that have been raised in the past that he suggested could serve as a starting point for a discussion on the venerated 1935 program.
“In recent years, many people have offered suggestions, such as limiting benefits for wealthy retirees; indexing benefits to prices, instead of wages; increasing the retirement age; or changing the benefit formulas and creating disincentives for early collection of Social Security benefits,” Bush said. “All these ideas are on the table.”
The president’s plea for ideas on Social Security comes as a new poll suggests his top domestic priority may be costing him some support.
A poll this week by Ipsos Public Affairs taken for The Associated Press showed that confidence in Bush’s job performance had slipped, particularly among older Americans.
Bush’s approval rating slipped to 45 percent conducted Feb. 7-9 from 49 percent in a survey in early January.
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